Life & Contributions

Mr Nathan (front row, first from left) at a session of the United Nations in 1970. Source: Personal collection published in An Unexpected Journey: Path to the Presidency.

Building up the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

In December 1965, Mr Nathan was transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to work under then Minister for Foreign Affairs S Rajaratnam, as assistant secretary and later deputy secretary. Mr Nathan worked closely with our founding leaders, leading the new nation through troubled times on the road to independence. Mr Nathan recalled the time when he first joined the ministry:

 

“…I entered [the Ministry of Foreign Affairs] in December 1965 as a young and ill-prepared civil servant. The late Professor Michael Leifer labelled us ‘a collection of information gatherers and messenger boys’. This was not inaccurate. Given the circumstances of our independence, we, who were part of the Ministry during its founding years, really floundered – learning diplomatic practices on the job and struggling to learn diplomacy through practical exposure… But we survived our mistakes and improvisations… Looking back, [the Ministry] had turned out to be a great enterprise made famous, despite our smallness, by many distinguished colleagues…”

 

Mr Nathan remained at the Foreign Ministry till January 1971. He returned to the Ministry in 1979 as its First Permanent Secretary.


Close ties with the Indian community

Mr Nathan served as chairman of the Hindu Endowments Board (HEB) from May 1983 to April 1988, where he worked with his fellow Board members including Mr V R Nathan, who later also became chairman of HEB, to improve the administration and management of Singapore's four major Hindu temples. Under his leadership, the HEB established a formal process to manage the four temples and channelled their increased revenues into financing social welfare activities for the needy. Crowd control measures were also introduced under his watch to ensure the safety of devotees and to prevent illegal activities during the observance of the fire-walking ceremony, the Thaipusam procession and other Hindu festivals. He also started programmes to raise funds for the construction and relocation of the Sri Sivan Temple from Dhoby Ghaut to Geylang.

After stepping down as chairman of the HEB, Mr Nathan went on to become a founding member of the Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA), and was its term trustee from 1997 to 1999. Although Mr Nathan has not claimed credit, the idea of SINDA was born out of his discussion with Mr Kernial Singh Sandhu, a former director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies who is familiar with the economic and educational positions of the Indians in Singapore. Today, SINDA remains a self-help group for the Indian community in Singapore. It provides education grants to the underprivileged and offers social and counselling services to families in need. After Mr Nathan became president in September 1999, he continued to support SINDA by giving his patronage to its fundraising activities.

 

Mr Nathan was also appointed to prominent positions in the Indian community. He explained in his memoirs why he took special interest in serving this community:

 

"Throughout my public service career I have been interested in social issues…However during my earlier career, it was inevitable that I, as an Indian, would be particularly conscious of issues affecting the welfare of the Indian community, particularly those in the lower-income groups."




Mr Nathan as Chairman of the Hindu Endowment Board, with President and Mrs Wee Kim Wee at Thaipusam, the annual Hindu festival of penance, held at Sri Thendayuthapani Temple in Tank Road. Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.


Mr Nathan receiving his honorary doctor of letters from President Tony Tan during the National University of Singapore’s commencement ceremony in 2012. The honorary degree was conferred on Mr Nathan to mark his contributions as Singapore’s president and his guidance to the university as its chancellor. Source: Singapore Press Holdings.

Contributions to academia

In July 1996, Mr Nathan was appointed the founding director of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (IDSS, later renamed the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in January 2007) . It was established to conduct both academic and policy-oriented research on security-related issues and developments affecting Southeast Asia and the Asia Pacific region. Tapping on his experience in foreign affairs, security and the diplomatic service, as well as his extensive networking skills, Mr Nathan established links with renowned overseas think tanks such as the RAND Corporation in the United States, the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, and the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London. These partnerships helped raise the institute’s standing among think tanks and academic institutions.

 In order to introduce a teaching component into IDSS, Mr Nathan inaugurated the Master of Science Programme in Strategic Studies. Starting with fewer than 10 sponsored students from various government ministries, IDSS began to attract students from all over the world and became an international hub by the time Mr Nathan left it in August 1999 to become President of Singapore.


Mr Nathan as guest of honour at the President’s Star Charity 2003. Source: Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.

Contributions to social services sector

Mr Nathan made significant contributions to the social services sector. In 1960, Mr Nathan was elected to the Singapore Council of Social Service, the predecessor of the National Council of Social Service, serving first as member and later as honorary secretary. He played a key role in ensuring that the council could carry out its function of coordinating and aligning the voluntary efforts of various charities in Singapore; in guiding it in compiling its first directory of social services, The Helping Hand; and in overseeing the planning and completion of its new premises on Penang Lane.

After he stepped down from the Council in 1970, Mr Nathan went on to serve as chairman of the Hindu Endowments Board from 1983 to 1988; and in 1991, became a founding member of the Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA), serving as its term trustee from 1997 to 1999. After he became president in September 1999, he extended his patronage to the Community Chest, National Council of Social Service, and more than 30 voluntary welfare organisations, including the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), Singapore Children’s Society, The Singapore Scout Association and Boys’ Brigade.

Besides initiating the President’s Challenge in 2000, Mr Nathan established the President’s Social Service Awards in 2001 to inspire, honour and recognise individuals, groups, organisations and corporations for their outstanding voluntary contributions in the social services sector.

Mr Nathan remained active in this sector after stepping down from the presidency by attending various fundraising initiatives, such as the St Joseph's Institution International charity golf event, and taking on roles like Chairman of CapitaLand Hope Foundation. In recognition of his contributions to the social services sector, the National University of Singapore launched the S R Nathan Professorship in Social Work in 2012.


Mr Nathan as Straits Times Press executive chairman, with the new weekly overseas edition of The Straits Times and the much older Straits Budget. Others are (from left) CEO Frank Yung, editor-in-chief of Straits Times Press Cheong Yip Seng and group general manager Denis Tay. Source: Singapore Press Holdings.

Contributions to the local media landscape

Mr Nathan was appointed executive chairman of The Straits Times Press (1975) Ltd in February 1982 at a time when there was tension between the government and the Straits Times over the paper's portrayal of Singapore's domestic policies. Mr Nathan ensured that it produced balanced and factually accurate news by taking steps to improve the editorial management, culture and professionalism of the paper. He developed the competency of editors and journalists in understanding the rationale behind certain government policies, introduced weekend seminars and discussion groups as well as annual study programmes for editors in reputable overseas educational institutions. At the same time, Mr Nathan ensured that the integrity and professionalism of the journalists and editors were not compromised.

After the merger of Times Publishing, Straits Times Press and Singapore News and Publications Ltd on 1 January 1984 under the management of a holding company called Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), Mr Nathan was made SPH director in addition to being chairman of Straits Times Press. During this period, Mr Nathan was instrumental in the planning of The New Paper – which was launched on 26 July 1988 – along with senior editors Peter Lim, Denis Tay and Cheong Yip Seng. Mr Nathan helped conceptualise the paper and gave advice on issues such as political sensitivities and the expectations of the political leadership.

When Mr Nathan resigned from the SPH board in April 1988 to assume the post of High Commissioner to Malaysia, senior editor Cheong Yip Seng paid him this compliment:

 

"When we did wrong in the eyes of the government, you did not just point your finger at us. You also tried to defend us and helped us learn from the experience. When we were wronged, you did not hesitate to say so to the powers that be…"

Members of the Industrial Training Board tour the galley of a ship repurposed for seamen training. Mr Nathan was involved in initiatives promoting the welfare and training of Singapore seamen in his job as seamen’s welfare officer and later as chairman of the Seamen’s Registry Board. Source: Singapore Press Holdings.

Early career in the Singapore public service

Mr Nathan was among the pioneer batch of students from the Social Work Department of the University of Malaya, graduating with a Diploma in Social Studies with Distinction in 1954. He then joined the Singapore public service as a hospital social service worker at the Singapore General Hospital in February 1955. A year later, he was appointed Seamen's Welfare Officer and was tasked to represent aggrieved seamen. He had to resolve grievances relating to employment and discharge of seamen, secure compensation for surviving spouses of deceased seamen, and obtain welfare for aged seamen with no prospects of further employment or means of living. This was extremely challenging for Mr Nathan. Not only did he have limited resources to work with, he was also emotionally affected by the cases he had to deal with. Nathan recounted his experience in his memoirs:

 

"Many of these [cases] pained me and affected me emotionally although my training advocated that I should be detached and not be emotionally involved. I was supposed to help the parties find a solution without undertaking to resolve their problems personally. Having to put theory into practice was something I encountered often. Many a time I had to find ways, unconventional by any measure, as I sought to solve them."

Mr Nathan (front row, third from left) at the inauguration ceremony upon acceptance into the University of Malaya in Singapore. Source: Personal collection, published in An Unexpected Journey: Path to the Presidency.

Early years and education

Mr Nathan had a difficult childhood while growing up in Malaya and Singapore. His father died when he was eight. Twice he was expelled from school– first by Anglo-Chinese Middle School at Standard Five and then by Victoria School before completing Standard Eight. This was when Mr Nathan decided to run away from home. He ended up in Muar where he took on odd jobs to survive.

Mr Nathan reconciled with his family during the Japanese Occupation and when the war was over, he joined the Johor civil service as a clerk in the Public Works Department. During this time, he became determined to complete his education. He sat for a series of examinations and finally entered university at age 28:

 

"Looking back I can see that going to university was my true intellectual beginning. It made up for everything I had missed during my school days…University taught me how to study. Learning became a habit, a continuing quest for knowledge…I realised how much I did not know. This interest in reading and continuing study even after my university days has been an enormous asset in my subsequent careers, all of which required me to chart my own course without a properly defined brief."

Mr Nathan holding a press conference at the airport upon his safe return to Singapore, after volunteering himself as a hostage while the Laju hijackers flew to the Middle East. Photo courtesy of SPH.

Laju Hijacking

Mr Nathan was director of the Security and Intelligence Division (SID) at the Ministry of Defence from August 1971 to February 1979, when he worked closely with then Defence Minister Dr Goh Keng Swee. It was during this period that Mr Nathan had to deal with the Laju hijacking incident on 31 January 1974. He spent many days negotiating with four hijackers from the Japanese Red Army and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine for the safe release of the Laju ferry’s crew members who had been taken hostage. He then risked his life by leading a 13-man delegation to accompany the hijackers on a flight to Kuwait as guarantors, in exchange for the release of the hostages. For his role in the incident, Mr Nathan was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal in 1974. Reflecting on the incident in his memoirs, Nathan wrote:

 

“I was personally thankful that the episode had ended without bloodshed, and regarded it as a valuable learning experience for me and all my colleagues in the various ministries involved, the security service, the police and the military. They all acquitted themselves well.”


Mr Nathan receiving the Meritorious Service Medal (Pingat Jasa Gemilang), the highest honour given in 1974, from President Dr Benjamin Henry Sheares at the 1974 National Day Awards Investiture held at Singapore Conference Hall. Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.

 

Mr Nathan was conferred the Order of Temasek (First Class) at the National Day Awards 2013. He received his sash and medal from President Tony Tan Keng Yam at the National Day Awards Investiture held on 10 November 2013 at the National University of Singapore. Mr Nathan is only the seventh person in history to receive the honour. Source: Ministry of Communications and Information

List of awards

1964: Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star).

1967: Pingat Pentadbiran Awam (Public Administration Medal; Silver), Perak.

1974: Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal).

2000: Temasek Sword, Singapore Police Force. 

2004: Asia-Pacific Regional Distinguished Scout Award.

2010: Al Khalifa Order (First Degree), Bahrain.

2010: Distinguished Service Award Gold, Singapore Scout Association.

2011: NTUC 50 Special Recognition Awards.

2011: Degree of Doctor of Civil Law, honoris causa, University of Mauritius.

2011: Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters, Nanyang Technological University.

2012: Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters, National University of Singapore.

2013: Order of Temasek (First Class).

2014: Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters, Singapore Management University.

Citation for the Order of Temasek conferred on Mr Nathan (2013)

Mr S R Nathan’s service to the nation spans the entire history of post-independence Singapore. He is among a select circle of pioneers who formulated and implemented Singapore’s foreign and security policies in its first decades as a sovereign state. He helped establish friendly relations with countries near and far, institutionalise foreign policy-making, and create the basis for our external security.

Mr Nathan was present at the founding of many key institutions. He served in the National Trades Union Congress from 1961 to 1965. After Singapore became independent in August 1965, he joined the newly-formed Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), eventually rising to become Permanent Secretary in 1979. Along the way, he served in yet another pioneering job – as Director of the Security and Intelligence Department at the Ministry of Defence. He was Director SID when the Laju hijacking took place in 1974. He showed great courage in this incident, volunteering to be one of the “guarantors” of safe passage for the terrorists. He accompanied them in an aircraft to a Middle Eastern country, in exchange for the release of their hostages.

Given his exceptional record of public service, it was not surprising that Mr Nathan came to grace the highest office in the land. He was elected Singapore’s sixth President in 1999, and served two terms. His love of Singaporeans from all walks of life was warmly reciprocated by the nation. He became Everyman’s President.

Few men have seen such a wide field of action in the course of their public careers – from social work to trade unions to diplomacy to intelligence to academia. Few have served Singapore so well and so faithfully, for so long.

For his lifetime of extraordinary labour for the well-being of Singaporeans, Mr S R Nathan is awarded The Order of Temasek (First Class).

 


Mr Nathan, then Assistant Director of Labour Research Unit, at a session of the Commission of Inquiry on Public Daily Rated Employees Unions Federation. Source: Singapore Press Holdings.

Mobilising the labour movement

In 1962, Mr Nathan was seconded to the Labour Research Unit (LRU), a unit of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). He assisted Secretary-General Devan Nair in the crucial early years of the NTUC. During Mr Nathan’s stint, the LRU played a key role in helping unions that had broken away from pro-communist groups with their collective bargaining or arbitration problems. The LRU also helped the NTUC overcome the challenges posed by pro-communist unions to become the country’s main trade union body. For his contributions, Mr Nathan received the Public Service Star at the National Day Awards 1964.

 Mr Nathan reflects on his time at the LRU:

 

“After a few months, I decided to stop agonising over the question of what I, a civil servant, was doing in disputes between employers and unions. I acted openly for various trade unions without worrying about largely academic questions of civil service neutrality. I recognised the role the LRU was performing, and I accepted that I too had a role to play, given the unpredictable political situation of the time and the growing agitation by pro-communist unions bent on creating political instability. And in discharging this responsibility, I knew that the LRU was helping many working people and their families in one way or another.”





Mr Nathan receiving the Public Service Star from the Yang di-Pertuan Negara Tun Yusof Ishak at the National Day Awards 1964 for his work in the Labour Research Unit. Source: Singapore Press Holdings



President Nathan attending his first National Day Parade as President in 2000. Source: MITA
President Nathan attending his first National Day Parade as President in 2000. Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.

Overview

Sellapan Ramanathan (b. 3 July 1924, Singapore – d. 22 August 2016, Singapore), popularly known as S R Nathan, was the sixth president of Singapore. One of his key legacies was the founding of the President’s Challenge, which has since become an annual community-based fundraising charity event for the disadvantaged and underprivileged. Before becoming president, Mr Nathan had an illustrious 40-year career in the public service where he held key positions in security, intelligence and foreign affairs. In recognition of his contributions to Singapore, Mr Nathan received many awards and accolades, including the Order of Temasek (First Class) in August 2013. 


Mr Nathan at home in Ceylon Road, after an early morning walk in East Coast Park. He lived in this neighbourhood for much of his life. Source: Singapore Press Holdings.

Post-retirement

Mr Nathan remained active in retirement. He served as a senior fellow at various institutions including the Singapore Management University, the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies. In 2011, he published his memoirs titled An Unexpected Journey: Path to the Presidency before venturing into children’s literature with a folktale, The Crane and the Crab, in 2013. His second memoirs, S R Nathan: Fifty Stories from My Life, was published in 2013. Mr Nathan continued to engage the community by setting up the S R Nathan Education Upliftment Fund in 2011 to provide financial support for needy students, among other things. He also hosted regular fireside chats with public officers to share his life lessons and personal experiences. Looking back on his life during his 90th birthday celebration in July 2014, Mr Nathan said:

 

“I am nearing the end of a long and unexpected journey, with its ups and downs. It has been a very fulfilling life, and I am happy to spend my years left in whatever service to the country.”

 

In recognition of his contributions to Singapore, the National University of Singapore instituted the S R Nathan Professorship in Social Work in 2012, while the Institute of Policy Studies set up the S R Nathan Fellowship for the Study of Singapore in 2013. In November 2013, Nathan was conferred the nation’s highest award – Order of Temasek (First Class) – at the National Day Awards investiture.


Mr Nathan receiving the letters of credence from President Wee Kim Wee to begin his post as Singapore’s High Commissioner to Malaysia at the Istana. Source: MITA

Representing Singapore overseas

Mr Nathan represented Singapore at two of our most important foreign missions. In April 1988, Mr Nathan was appointed High Commissioner to Malaysia against a backdrop of strained bilateral ties, after Israeli president Chaim Herzog's visit to Singapore. 

 

Mr Nathan receiving the letters of credence to begin his post as Singapore’s Ambassador to the United States at the Istana. Source: Istana Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.

From September 1990 to June 1996, Mr Nathan served as Singapore's Ambassador to the United States. During this time, he had to deal with diplomatic pressure to prevent the caning of American citizen Michael Fay who was charged with vandalism. He even had to appear on talk show "Larry King Live" to defend Singapore's point of view and stand. Years later, at Mr Nathan's birthday celebration, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong remembered Mr Nathan for having done so "firmly and courteously, and showed the whole world small as Singapore was, neither we, nor our representatives, were pushovers."


Mr Nathan taking his oath of office as the sixth President of Singapore at the Istana State Room on 1 September 1999. Source: MICA

The presidential years

After President Ong Teng Cheong, the fifth president of Singapore, announced his decision not to seek re-election, Mr Nathan was approached to submit his candidacy for the presidential election. Mr Nathan agreed and was elected president on 18 August 1999 in uncontested elections. He was sworn in as Singapore's sixth president on 1 September 1999. On 17 August 2005, President Nathan was re-elected for a second term, again in uncontested elections In July 2011, President Nathan announced that he would not seek a third term. By then, he had become Singapore's longest-serving president. Mr Nathan was succeeded by President Tony Tan Keng Yam, who was elected Singapore's seventh president on 27 August 2011. Mr Nathan expressed in his memoirs that it was his sense of duty to serve the country, and this obligation to the country encouraged him to shoulder the special duties of the presidency:

 

"Over the years, whenever I have been called upon to do anything for the country, I have never turned away from duty. Duty – to friends and family, to my fellow men, to country – is paramount to my view of life, and I have tried my best to live up to this ethic."

 

During his two terms as president from 1999 to 2011, Mr Nathan hosted about 50 heads of state and over 100 prime ministers and important delegations on official visits to Singapore. He also made state visits to around 30 countries, including eight capital cities of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Many of these state visits were firsts for Singapore, including those to South Africa, Namibia and Botswana in 2007. Political observers have noted that Mr Nathan's stints in the foreign ministry helped strengthen diplomatic ties and develop trade links with many countries. In 2009, Mr Nathan made a momentous decision by approving the government's use of S$4.9 billion from the reserves to fund anti-recessionary measures. This marked the first time that the government had requested to use part of the reserves, which required the approval of the president and the Council of Presidential Advisers.

A hallmark of Mr Nathan's presidency was his rapport with the people and his support for a diverse range of social causes, particularly those for the disadvantaged. To encourage Singaporeans of all ages and from all walks of life to "strengthen [the nation's] philanthropic tradition and the spirit of community caring and volunteerism", Mr Nathan founded the President's Challenge in 2000, which has become an annual community-based fundraising charity event for the disadvantaged and underprivileged. Between 2000 and 2011, the event raised more than S$100 million for more than 500 beneficiary organisations. In his memoirs, Mr Nathan acknowledged that it was the efforts of past presidents that inspired him to initiate a fundraising event:

 

"I realised that my predecessors, from President Yusof Ishak onwards, had all played an active, even high-profile role in promoting voluntary welfare activities. They agreed to be the patron of voluntary associations and gave support for their work particularly in their fundraising efforts, such as concerts and gala dinners…I decided that I should not only continue that tradition, but do more. I wanted to reach out to the wider community, and get people from all walks of life involved in helping the less fortunate."

 


President Ong Teng Cheong hosting a lunch at the Istana for Mr S R Nathan and former President Wee Kim Wee in late August 1999. This was after Mr Nathan had been elected but before he took office. Source: MICA and published in An Unexpected Journey: Path to the Presidency